Neal M. Sher, who was called America’s foremost Nazi hunter when he led a Justice Department unit dedicated to tracking down and prosecuting former death camp guards and others suspected of committing war crimes during the Holocaust, died Oct. 3 at his home in Manhattan. He was 74.
For more than a decade, Mr. Sher spearheaded the U.S. effort to identify, prosecute and deport Nazi soldiers and collaborators who had slipped into the United States, often by concealing their actions during World War II.
The Office of Special Investigations (OSI) was established in 1979, largely at the instigation of then-U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.). Mr. Sher was one of OSI’s first staff lawyers and tried its first case in 1980, against Wolodymir Osidach, a former member of a Ukrainian police unit that had rounded up and killed thousands of Jewish people. Osidach was convicted and stripped of his U.S. citizenship.
“For these people to live freely in the United States is contrary to everything this country stands for,” Mr. Sher said in 1983, the year he became OSI director.
Mr. Sher led a staff of fewer than 40 lawyers and historians as they combed through decades-old documents in the United States and Europe in the pursuit of belated justice. Over the years, they discovered that thousands of onetime Nazis had settled in the United States. Legal action was taken against more than 100, including numerous death-camp guards who were judged to be complicit in the mass murder of thousands of victims.
“It’s important to understand how difficult it was to identify these people,” Stuart E. Eizenstat, a onetime U.S. ambassador to the European Union who has negotiated Holocaust restitution settlements, said in an interview. “Neal was bringing to light real people who were still alive. He played a major historical role in filling the gaps in knowledge of how extensive the Nazi network of survivors was in the United States and in bringing some of these people to justice.”
By the 1980s and 1990s, most of the people investigated by Mr. Sher’s office were in their 60s, 70s and 80s. When lawyers and family members complained that the aging defendants were harmless old men, Mr. Sher replied, “To their victims, they were the Holocaust incarnate.”
Mr. Sher traveled to Brazil in 1985 after learning that a grave purportedly containing the body of Josef Mengele, a sadistic Nazi doctor known as the “angel of death,” had been exhumed. David G. Marwell, a former OSI staff member who published a book about Mengele last year, said Mr. Sher organized an international forensic team to examine the skeletal remains. Subsequent DNA testing confirmed Mengele’s identity beyond doubt.
In 1987, after investigators concluded that Austrian president Kurt Waldheim had committed war crimes as a high-ranking Nazi official during World War II, Mr. Sher recommended that Waldheim be banned from entering the United States. Attorney General Edwin Meese III agreed to the sanction, and other countries followed suit.
One of the OSI’s most publicized cases, which lasted for decades, involved a Ukrainian-born autoworker in Ohio named John Demjanjuk. In the 1970s, U.S. immigration authorities began deportation proceedings against Demjanjuk after discovering that he had lied on his application form to enter the United States in the 1950s. He was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1981.
During the 1980s, Mr. Sher’s OSI team built a case against Demjanjuk, ultimately concluding that he had been an infamous guard dubbed “Ivan the Terrible” at the Treblinka death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, where an estimated 900,000 Jews were put to death.
Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel to face trial in 1987. He was convicted of genocide and other crimes and sentenced to death. In 1993, however, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered his release when newly discovered documents suggested that Ivan the Terrible was most likely a guard named Ivan Marchenko.
Demjanjuk’s U.S. citizenship was restored, despite Mr. Sher’s protestations that he was guilty as charged. Mr. Sher’s office came under fire from lawmakers, pundits and then-U. S. Attorney General William P. Barr. An appellate court determined that prosecutors had not shared possible exculpatory evidence with defense attorneys.
Years later, after Mr. Sher had left OSI, new charges were brought against Demjanjuk, alleging that he had been a guard at other concentration camps and was an accessory to more than 28,000 murders. Demjanjuk lost his U.S. citizenship a second time, and his trial was ultimately held in Germany, where he was convicted in 2011. He died a year later.
Neal Matthew Sher was born Aug. 29, 1947, in Brooklyn. His father was a postal worker, and his mother worked for the city housing authority.
He graduated from Cornell University in 1968 and from law school at New York University in 1972. He was in private practice before joining the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting team.
From 1994 to 1996, Mr. Sher was executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a leading lobbying group for Israeli interests on Capitol Hill. He advised the Canadian government on expelling onetime Nazis from the country and also was chief of staff for the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims. He resigned from the latter position in 2002 after being accused of cheating on his expenses.
Mr. Sher made a full restitution of more than $100,000, but the infraction led to his disbarment in the District of Columbia.
“In light of my history, years of service, and all the circumstances,” Mr. Sher told Legal Times, “I cannot help but feel that this is terribly unfair — to be subjected to the capital punishment of the legal profession.”
He later entered private practice in New York, where his license was restored. In recent years, he represented victims of a 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas, in which an Army psychiatrist, Nidal Malik Hasan, was convicted of killing 13 people and wounding more than 30. The shootings were later determined to be a terrorist act.
Mr. Sher argued against the Defense Department’s initial ruling that the victims did not qualify for the Purple Heart, a medal awarded to service members killed or wounded in the line of duty. Congress later changed the criteria for the Purple Heart, allowing the Fort Hood victims to receive the decoration.
Mr. Sher’s marriages to Anne Masters and Grazia Lupi ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 13 years, Bonnie Kagan of New York; a stepson, Lee Kagan; and a brother.
During Mr. Sher’s 15 years at OSI, the office revoked the U.S. citizenship of about 50 ex-Nazis and deported or extradited about 40. The office merged with the Justice Department’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section in 2010.
“People say, ‘So many years after the war, why is the United States going after these people?’ ” Mr. Sher told The Washington Post in 1993. “I say these people have no business being here. … This country shouldn’t be a safe haven for tyrants and persecutors.”